Hope. The NFL sells hope more than any other league. In the NBA, we can pencil in the Warriors and Cavs in the finals. In baseball, does anyone care if it’s not the Yankees, Cubs, Red Sox, or Cardinals? College football has Alabama, Clemson, USC, Michigan, etc.
For NFL fans, this time of year is hopeful. There are fan bases across the country getting excited for their team’s run to the Super Bowl. Get hot at the right time, and you can watch your favorite team play in Minnesota on a cold Sunday in February.
One fan base whose hopes should be strong right now is that of the Tennessee Titans. That hope rests, as it rightfully should, on the shoulders of quarterback Marcus Mariota.
As Mariota enters his third professional season, the sky is the limit. I’m an Oregon alum, so I’ve been following Marcus since he first stepped onto the field in the Oregon green and yellow (or gray, black, orange, white or whatever other color Oregon chooses on a Saturday). I knew Mariota was talented. He’s intelligent, a great leader, has a strong arm, and can move fluidly.
Still, I was skeptical he would succeed in the NFL.
One style of quarterback play wins Super Bowls — a pocket passer. There has yet to be a college spread option offense quarterback who’s won a Super Bowl. Everyone will scream Russell Wilson at their screens. He played in a pro style offense at Wisconsin, and he’s a pocket passer before he’s a runner. The way Mariota is progressing, I could see him being the first quarterback from a college spread option offense to win a Super Bowl.
Mariota had an up-and-down, injury-plagued rookie season. He had turnover issues and got sacked 38 times, way too often for a rookie to get comfortable. To make matters worse, there was a coaching change midway through his rookie season. Ken Whisenhunt was out; Mike Mularkey was in.
There were other changes that needed to be made to get Mariota comfortable in the pocket.
Heading into the 2016 season, Mularkey and Co. added DeMarco Murray and drafted Derrick Henry to pair in the backfield. They also drafted stud right tackle Jack Conklin to help shore up protection for Mariota.
It was announced, with some mockery, that Mularkey wanted to go old school and run the football first, pass second. Use a tight end and a fullback on the field at the same time, which is the opposite direction most teams are heading nowadays. Now a full season removed from this decision, it couldn’t have gone any better for Mariota’s development.
By forcing Mariota into an old school offensive structure, it made him learn to play quarterback from the beginning — start under center, learn the proper reads, and improve as a pocket passer.
At times, offensive staffs decide to incorporate spread offense elements to help ease a college quarterback into the NFL. This doesn’t always lead to success and more importantly, it can lead to injuries. You’d rather the quarterback get hit as little as possible.
Lastly, when you start with a run-based offense, it opens up the play action for success. Play-action passes are generally easier reads for the quarterback. The linebackers feel run, suck up, and you throw a crosser behind them. Not as complicated as spreading it out.
Without much help at wide receiver, Mariota had a much-improved second season before breaking his ankle in Week 15. Mariota threw for 26 touchdowns and just nine interceptions. He had a top-10 quarterback rating, and his offense was just above league average.
Where Mariota shines, where it counts the most, is in the red zone. Lots of offenses can move between the 20s. That’s easy. The field is spread out, and there are plenty of holes to find long chunk plays. In the red zone, things happen fast.
Last season, Mariota completed 62.5 percent of his red-zone passes, good for top five in the league. He’s yet to throw a red-zone interception in his two seasons, running his tally to 33 touchdowns against zero picks. This is all without a go-to red-zone receiver.
A good front office is one that knows how to surround its franchise player with weapons. In 2016, they were Murray, Henry, and Conklin. This offseason, the Titans drafted Corey Davis fifth overall, a big-bodied wide receiver for Mariota. The Titans also drafted a receiver in the third round and a tight end in the fourth. Lastly, they brought in free agent Eric Decker, another go-to receiver in the red zone. Mariota should be excited about this offseason haul.
As well as improving the offense around Mariota, the Titans upgraded their secondary that was piss-poor last season. Improved play on defense should equal better field position for the Titans offense and more points.
Everything is looking up for the Titans and Mariota. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Titans, behind their franchise quarterback, win the division and go deep into the playoffs.